Why protests become violent

And how to prevent that from happening

| By and
Photo of protest in Johannesburg
Protest in southern Johannesburg earlier this month. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee

South Africa’s protests are often taken to signify the collapse of the social compact. They aren’t. Our (modest) experience has shown that protests are often a frustrated plea for an extension of the social compact - not its invalidation.

As protests in Kliptown early this month spread to Freedom Park, engulfed Ennerdale, and quickly almost any area flanking the N12 Highway, a familiar response unfolded in South Africa’s public sphere.

Accounts of protest were catapulted from nuisances recorded in traffic reports to lead stories of news bulletins. Protest leaders became the centre of television, radio and print news stories. Elsewhere the usual script was dusted off. Politicians used the protests as a canvas to project their own programs, further entrenching patronage by offering loan schemes here, housing schemes there, while also mobilising a brutal response that turned neighborhoods into war zones, and children into target practice.

That fundamental change is necessary has become a cliche. The question that rages from Kliptown to Ennerdale is how. The demands of Vuwani, Bekkersdaal, Mototlung, OR Tambo, and so many others remind us that we cannot delay how we respond any longer.

The first step must be to recognize the growing depth and breadth of organisation in our poorest communities. Leaders of these communities have marshalled hundreds to march on Luthuli House and delay an NEC meeting, made sophisticated use of their history as sites of struggle, formed their own cooperatives, built their own sanitation or water systems, and picketed the media. They adopt new technology rapidly — many use Grassroot, an app built by one of us to enable such organizing, and which now reaches over 30,000 people — and they regularly initiate official and legal proceedings.

Several leaders from such communities, engaged on multiple fronts in crucial struggles, felt the need to consolidate their experiences and wanted a space to share them with each other in a series of seminars we agreed to host. Community leaders from Freedom Park, Kliptown and Motsoaledi pored over the text of the constitution, intricate municipal laws and power maps of municipal structures. While no clear answers emerged, the diminished power of the solutions we have been relying on for the last 23 years is inescapable.

“Courts are not for us comrades”

Reading aloud Section 26 of the Constitution, which promotes the right to housing, a community leader from Motsoaledi recounted how her shack was burnt to the ground by landlords working with local ANC and SANCO councillors (backyard dwellers in her area are overwhelmingly pro-EFF). Her life for the last year has involved squatting on uninhabitable land as she waited for deliverance through a court judgment. Elsewhere, community leaders in Freedom Park bear the wrath of stun grenades, rubber bullets and repeated evictions from land they occupy. They have won some successes - as Abahlali base Freedom Park - but find courts an increasingly limited avenue.

Courts are clogged and human rights’ lawyers are inundated. Proceedings are drawn out and deliver too little or too late to very few people. Dispirited community leaders feel unable to “sell” legal solutions to their members. As Peter Monete, a leader from Freedom Park put it, “Courts are not for us comrade - we need something else.” Yet the “something else” Peter speaks of is not an abandonment of the Constitution altogether - but a more urgent mechanism to realise its promise.

Collective decision-making

It must by now be clear what that mechanism is not. Houses are better than no houses, but yet another promise of yet another limited in scale, top-down program will only leave us back here in a few years. In Kliptown, at the peak of the protests, hundreds gathered to meet the MEC of housing, at 4pm, to hear about his responses to the petitions they had sent to his office for a year—and he claimed to have never seen. By 5pm, when he had still not arrived, as anger mounted about such casual disrespect, and as violence flared a few blocks away in Eldorado Park, groups of young men broke off and began looting. When the MEC finally arrived at 6pm, he promised a housing program—for 1,200 families, a fraction of those in the area. There would be little involvement by the community itself, all would be just farmed off into a turnkey project.

Such experiences were repeated across the protests, with the most common response a form of, “keep quiet, here are some promises, wait for us to deliver”. At the same time, communities that had spent years in protracted discussions, debates and entreaties to the vast bureaucracy presiding over them were told to risk their own safety preventing violence, when the violence was the sole and only reason they were being engaged in true discussion or being reported on at all. Months before these protests, one community picketed media houses trying to get attention, to be ignored. Another phoned in to radio stations, to be cut off after ten seconds. As one leader put it, “we know they will ignore us, and we know what will make them come”. Then the same media, and the same officials, deplore the violence that their own apathy makes inevitable.

Community structures are not without their own challenges of course. They are preyed upon by political opportunists, who pick off leaders and sow divisions by offering inducements and piecemeal remedies that benefit a few while leaving the structural problems unchanged. “The crisis of leadership is real,” one leader himself said. But in our experience these communities and their leaders are open and honest about their limitations, far more so than elite institutions. They thirst for knowledge about how to address their challenges and the opportunity to use what they know.

The “sit down and wait for us to deliver” response is not always cynical, but does nothing to bring a vast segment of the population into the core of decision-making or into mainstream media. And so the gulf between corridors of power and those most affected by it remains ever widening.

So how to move forward?

We need to accept once and for all that merely delivering more goods and services to community members who have had little input in deciding what is rightfully theirs or how it is to be allocated will not address the alienation of vulnerable groups in South African society. Fundamentally this will only change when communities are actively involved in shaping their own destiny.

As Sandile, a community leader from Kliptown said, “we know not everything can happen now-now. But come and talk to us.” As long as poor people are seen as mere subjects and not citizens, receptacles of government largesse and not empowered decision-makers of their society, our democracy will continue to resemble the “two states” described by Thabo Mbeki. That change in perspective must take place not only by officials, but by journalists and commentators and the public sphere more generally.

Learning from Brazil

In Brazil, in many cities the capital budgets for wards are allocated through a process of direct citizen participation and voting. The city specifies the envelope of funds, and provides some alternative projects. Over several months, citizens debate among themselves what to fund, leading up to final decision-making. In some cities, this process is complimented by monitoring or advisory boards, again drawn from citizens themselves.

The process is not simple, and in some places it has failed, but it has now been running for over twenty years. In the last few years it has spread to many other countries. It was, in fact, considered for South Africa post-1994, before being jettisoned in favour of bureaucratic centralization. Even today, some cities and officials discuss adopting it, and technology (including Grassroot) would smooth the way. Yet too often, on first encounter with the messy difficulty and challenge of running such a process, officials go running back to consultants and Powerpoints — and the next set of protests starts to build.


As once South Africa had the daring to try what few others had ever done, so we may need to again. We must do so because it is the right thing to do, but also because, beyond momentary political scandal, our response to our communities will determine what kind of country we become in the long run.

Of course, an empty fiscus means nothing will be done. But if all that results from recent protests in southern Johannesburg is yet another top-down, unresponsive program, a promise to provide but not to empower, we will be back here soon. If the media do not want to listen and government does not want to change how it works because doing so is the right thing to do, both might want to do so from a sense of self-preservation.

Jordan is the founder and director of Grassroot, a mobile application helping grassroots’ communities organise more effectively. Bhardwaj is a public health student at Johns Hopkins University who is also active within the Right2Know Campaign.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

TOPICS:  Human Rights

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

When the structures put in place by government fail, citizenry look for alternate solutions. Some obvious examples of these have been the establishment of trade unions, non payment (eg. to SANRAL), the establishment of new political parties, challenges through the courts, disrespect for law (ignoring a summons), bribery, marches, demonstrations, and finally riots, death squads, and murders and property destruction.
The citizen wants a better deal!

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